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Martyrdom: an Oxford don writes

George Bernard Shaw was a playwright. He was also a supporter of Stalin. Therefore, it’s always amusing to see people poking fun at him. Here is one Charles Mercier responding to Shaw shortly after Emily Davison was trampled to death at the Derby:

The Times, 4 July 1913 p4 (right click to see original)

The Times, 4 July 1913 p4 (right click to see original)

If I understand Mr Bernard Shaw aright, his contentions are two – first, that a martyr is a person who seals his belief with his blood; and, second, that if a person seals his belief in his blood, we ought at once to adopt that belief, or at least act as if it were true. “Sealing one’s belief with one’s blood” is a picturesque expression which has always hitherto been understood to mean choosing the alternative of death when we are compelled to choose between death and abandoning, or pretending to abandon, a belief. No one offered this choice to Miss Davison, and in this sense she certainly did not seal her belief with her blood, and was not a martyr. Mr Shaw would extend the expression to the act of committing suicide in order to demonstrate the truth of a belief; and his opinion seems to be that, if a person offers this proof of the truth of any belief, we ought to act as if the belief were true. There seems to me to be a flaw in his reasoning, and the practice would be inconvenient.

I, for instance, have a settled and profound conviction that Aristotle’s logic is utterly erroneous, and that my own system is immeasurably superior to it, but if I cut my throat in order to seal this belief with my blood, and thereby compel the University of Oxford to supersede Aristotelian logic with my own, what is to prevent the eminent Waynflete Professor of Logic from blowing out his brains, and demonstrating that Aristotle is right, and I am wrong? In such a case ought the University to revert to Aristotelian logic, or ought it to suspend its judgement until Professor Schiller, who agrees with me, drowns himself in the Cherwell? It seems to me that if Mr Bernard Shaw’s doctrines are carried into practice they will lead to the sacrifice of many useful lives with but little compensating advantage. If, however, he really holds these opinions with the fervour that his expression of them seems to indicate, he has himself shown the proper way to impress them on the community, a way that I hesitate to commend to him, lest I should find myself in the unpleasant position of an accessory before the fact to a felony.

In those days suicide was a crime.

Much as this is amusing there is a flaw: George Bernard Shaw didn’t actually say it.

20 comments to Martyrdom: an Oxford don writes

  • Paul Marks

    Jumping in front of a horse does not prove a case about extending voting (although it should be noted that women, if ratepayers had had the vote for the election of Poor Law Guardians since 1834 – indeed female land tax payers had the vote, on the same basis as male land tax payers, in such American States as New Jersey as early as the 1700s – before the Jeffersonians took away their votes for the crime of voting Federalist, they did a similar thing to free blacks in New York State).

    It seems reasonable to me that those who pay taxes (and are not dependent on government pay or benefits) should have some say in how this tax money is spent (although voting for MPs is a rather indirect, and uncertain, form of influence), whether they are women or black or whatever, but jumping in front of horses proves nothing.

    All killing one’s self proves is that one has decided to kill oneself and has acted on this decision. Indeed one can not be certain even of this – as the person jumping in front of the horse may not intend to die (they may be in a state of mental confusion).

    The death of the person riding the horse (who later committed suicide) is also normally over looked in this case.

    As for G.B. Shaw and the rest of the (totalitarian) Fabians – they could not recognise a logical argument if they fell over one.

    Mr Shaw attitude to human life can be seen by the little talk he gave (and had filmed) in which he stated….

    “I do not hate anybody, I do not want to punish anybody – but there are great number of people I wish to kill. If someone can not justify their existence before a properly constituted government board (rather like the income tax tribunal) then they should be killed….”.

    Unlike Mr Shaw there are people I hate – for example, Fabians. Indeed all totalitarian “Social Justice” supporters – without exception. And I have no use for government boards “properly constituted” or otherwise.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    It’s true that Shaw did not use the words “seals his belief with his blood”. He did not even use an argument particularly close to that, at least not in the letter you link to, though I wonder if he had elsewhere and that is what Charles Mercier was referring to.

    However in the linked letter Shaw manages to come up with his trademark ingenious but facile style of argument:

    “The situation, then, is that if Mrs Pankhurst dies public opinion will consider that the Government […] will have executed her. Mr Asquith will not be moved by that: in his opinion it will matter just as much as killing a rabbit.”

    It takes a lot to make me sympathise with a person opposing female suffrage in his argument with a person proposing it, but Shaw’s characterisation of Asquith as believing that Asquith cared as little about killing a woman as killing a rabbit managed it.

    I can still read Shaw’s plays with pleasure, but the more I know of him, the harder it gets.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Just to expand on my last comment, Shaw’s initial introduction of the rabbit motif was fair enough. Paraphrasing a little, he said in that letter that Mr Asquith opposed the Bill on grounds that a woman is not the female of the human species but a distinct and inferior species naturally disqualified from voting as a rabbit is disqualified from voting.

    That’s legitimate as a slightly dramatic rhetorical device to make the argument.

    It was his leap from there to Asquith caring no more about killing a woman than a rabbit that annoyed me.

    Though as Paul Marks and you yourself have observed, the twinkle-eyed old Stalinist did plenty worse than that.

  • @Natalie. Viewing the world of 100 years ago through the pages of the Times is a bit like looking through a letterbox – you miss a lot. GBS’s letter was the only one I could find that seemed appropriate and it did have the magic words at the end. It is, of course, possible that he made the claims Mercier refers to somewhere else but that seems unlikely.

  • By the way this is Asquith’s speech from the debate in question. I see little evidence of the opinions that GBS ascribes to him. To be honest, I see little evidence of any opinions at all.

  • Paul Marks

    On the artistic side – Mr Shaw is like Mr Wagner, somehow one must divide the man from the work (and that is harder with a play than with music).

    As for Mr Shaw saying things that are not true – certainly he did (and knowingly) he was a liar. As was Mr Wells and the Webbs (and the rest of the Fabians).

    However, sometimes (in a odd way) they seem to have felt the need to confess their evil.

    For example, the “Fabian Window” – a statement (in stained glass) of what they believed, what they were.

    It is obvious from the “Fabian Window” that they were fiends (wolves in the clothing of sheep) who were prepared to melt and hammer the entire population of the world if they “had to” in order to achieve their “heart’s desire”.

    Most people took their statements (during such fits of honesty) as jokes – but they were not jokes.

    They really were this bad.

    “Kim” Philby (and the others) also had occasional fits of honesty (perhaps from some deep need to confess) – but, again, their socialist statements were treated as jokes.

    If someone makes a leftist statement – one should not assume it is a joke.

    I remember first reading “Tinker, Taylor….” (by Mr Cornwall) when I was a child.

    I noted that the hero (“George Smilely”) actually agrees with the various bits of Communist propaganda that the unmasked traitor comes out with – in his mind “Smiley” says to himself that these statements are true). I also noted that that the hero of the book seems to speak for the author of the book (Mr Cornwall – “John Le….”).

    My childhood judgement was denounced as “paranoid” – but(many years later) out came such fairly open Marxist works as “The Constant Gardiner”.

    Pull out someone’s finger nails? Fry their sexual organs? Why do these things?

    If one carefully examines the words of someone their innocence or guilt can be found – without any need for torture.

    Torture is the way of the stupid and the lazy.

  • Veryretired

    So many allegedly intelligent and educated people were caught up in the desperate 19th century search for a new organizing principle to replace the discredited rule of the aristocracy. Unfortunately, they were drawn to the supposedly scientific centrally organized theories which reinforced their own conceits and thwarted any attempt by the untrustworthy common folks to plan their own lives.

    Oddly, or ironically, it was these elitist, neo-aristocratic mindsets that powered the wide acceptance of the supposedly “classless” social organizing ideologies such as marx’s pile of venomous nonsense.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Patrick, on second thoughts I think you are right and Mercier just used the melodramatic image at the end of Shaw’s letter as a jumping off point for his own flight of fancy, and perhaps to argue against an error that was commonplace at the time even if not necessarily made by Shaw.

    Across a hundred years I thank him! Shaw may not have claimed that suicide makes right but I’ve read quite a few commentaries more recent than 1913 that came close to it. The tendency to evaluate beliefs on the sincerity of the holder has this idea as its logical conclusion. What could be better proof of sincerity than suicide?

    P.S. I’ve noticed that a sentence in my first comment does not make sense. I mangled an edit. “Shaw’s characterisation of Asquith as believing that Asquith cared as little about killing a woman as killing a rabbit managed it” should read “Shaw’s characterisation of Asquith as caring as little about killing a woman as killing a rabbit managed it”.

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    Never mind, Natalie. We think we understand what you might have meant, and will use it against you in future. (Boy, give them the vote, and they start acting as though their opinions matter!!! Where will it end?)

  • Paul Marks

    veryretired – yes the cultural (educational and general cultural) desire for society to be “organised” (the treason of the intellectuals since the time of Plato).

    It is old even in practical politics.

    For example Sir John Fortescue (the best known political writer of the 1400s, yes the 15th century, and supposedly the great defender of English liberty against European tyranny) takes for granted that, if Parliament consents, the law can be changed in anyway the ruler feels like (part of the root of out problems is that the will of the rulers supposedly trumps the principles of law – when such a thing as natural principles of law is admitted to exist at all) – and he goes further than this.

    An council of experts (oh I wonder who he sees a possible member of it…..) should be set up to advice the King – kicking out the old nobles, for example on such things as how to reduce imports and increase exports (yes even in the 1400s we get this statist “manage the economy” nonsense – and already people who oppose it are condemned as anti intellectual and old fashioned).

    Well Chief Justice Fortescue – if Parliament consents, is it lawful to kill people for having brown eyes? If your answer is “no” your theory of Constitutional law is false (by your own admission) and if your answer is “yes” then you are no man of the law (be you Chief Justice or not). Most likely you would simply dodge the question,as Maitland did in the 19th century, by claiming that Parliament (“the voice of the nation”) would never pass an evil Statute (Maitland claims they had never “once” done this – which is technically true, as Parliament had actually passed many, not just one, evil Statutes over the centuries).

    By the late 19th century collectivism (often under the false flag of “freedom” and “liberation”) is far more advanced among many intellectuals – the law seen as just what is for the advantage of “the people” (that view of law destroys the meaning of the concept of “law” – which is supposed to protect individuals and private associations, not just be another way of attacking them for the “greater good”) and society seen not as the web of voluntary interactions between human beings, but as a collective entity to be “organised” by the intellectuals.

    Basically G.B. Shaw and other supposedly “modern” people are throw backs to Plato and co.

    And they rightly understood that the land owner aristocracy and gentry (although sometimes wrong – as with the Corn Laws) were the natural enemies of the collectivist intellectuals.

    It is perfectly true that manufacturers and traders (and everyone else – right down to the most unskilled employee) would be enslaved and destroyed by collectivism – but those people whose families have owned landed estates (even small ones) over centuries seem to have the time and the “instinct” (for want of a better word) to see the collectivist intellectuals for the evil they are (ordinary businessmen appear to tend to be less difficult to deceive – perhaps because they are such busy people, and tend to make the mistake that people are motivated by money so are knocked sideways by people who are motivated by POWER).

    Certainly many leftists come from old and wealthy families – but they do not tend to be people who actually manage the land themselves (sorry if that sounds romantic), they tend to be people who have gone off to university and to the big city cultural world.

    There really does seem to be a tradition among those who actually own the land for centuries against statist collectivism.

    This is the real reason that collectivist intellectuals (whether those who whisper in the ears of “enlightened” Kings – or those who wish to set up “new societies”) hate the old (landed) aristocracy and gentry, at least those who stay on the land.

    Businessmen really do appear to be less difficult (in spite of their often very high intelligence) to deceive, in political matters, than those who have the tradition of the land (in a literal sense) running in their families for centuries.

    The old squire knows “in his bones” what he is facing (he or she, oh yes the Miss Marple type, can sense the evil behind the little smile and “just a joke” words of people like Mr Shaw) – the smart trader is often caught by surprise.

    “But how does this benefit you?” seems to be the cry of the businessman as he and his family are dragged to the slaughter house.

    “It does not benefit me – but it is FUN!” would be an honest reply from the intellectual (after all these people know that such polices do not really benefit the “workers and peasants” – they die as well, in vast numbers).

    And it is this (the sense of evil) that the old squire (and the Miss Marple type) seem to be able to spot.

  • Someone please, make Paul’s last comment into a front-page post…

  • Julie near Chicago

    Just a note — Wikipedia thinks it unlikely Miss Davison committed suicide; more likely it was an accident.


  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Alisa, I would not like to take the liberty given that Paul could do so himself if he so wished, but I agree that he should.

    However I will pinch one particular line for QotD.

  • Thank you – much appreciated:-)

  • Hmm

    There really does seem to be a tradition among those who actually own the land for centuries against statist collectivism.

    Paul, It’s mostly a vanity thing: The Old Landed Gentry (etc) are secure in their place – they don’t have to appear better than they are, whereas their ‘universitied’ children and the middle class children etc, those who want to be the cream of the crop – can see that collectivism/leftism gives them the value(though its only a group hallucination) of being caring sharing wonderful intellectual precious flowers… without actually having to work or think or anything so difficult – all they have to do is: ‘Repeat the propaganda and follow the leader’!

  • Paul Marks

    Alisa is correct – I have no idea about computers (and so many other practical things).


    Yes moral security – rather than financial security.

    When times were economically hard for estates (for example the 1930s – when a farm could be bought for five Pounds in England) their moral position remained the same (even if they did not have the money to stop the roof leaking). They knew their “place” in the universe – what they should do.

    As even the life long socialist George Orwell pointed out in 1939 “who steps forward to defend civilisation?” (now the Soviet Union and National Socialist Germany were allies) “only Colonel Blimp and the old school tie”.

    What the film (half) gets right (and the sneering cartoons of the 1930s got utterly wrong) is that Colonel Blimp is actually a heroic figure.

    Not only will he not do evil himself – but he will also defend others against evil (even people who have nothing in common with him – people who can not speak his language and look nothing like him), and he is prepared to die to defend them.

    Also – although the English tradition is to pretend to be stupid (and England is [or rather WAS]perhaps the only culture in the world where to call someone clever is to insult them – although that leaked over a bit into the aristocracy and gentry of other parts of this island), real Colonel Blimps (and they did exist) were often not stupid at all.

    If they are open to attack (and they are) it is over this habit (indeed tradition) of pretending to be stupid (as a matter of politeness – undercutting themselves to put other people at ease, wildly different from, for example, the tradition of the Prussian Junker).

    For example the British Prime Minister in 1964 – who said “I do not understand these things – I do economics with matchsticks”.

    This was taken literally (and helped him lose the election) as the tradition was already dying (he seems like someone from another age – which he was) and,if people pretend to be stupid, it is hard to tell who is actually stupid (for example in military command) – till it is too late.

    If people are going to great lengths to hide their intelligence – it is sometimes hard to tell which people do not have much intelligence to hide.

  • Mr Ed

    With regard to the ‘stupid/clever’ dichotomy, a opportune point to crowbar in a quote from General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord.